Coverage of Israel-Lebanon conflict straddles a false "balance beam"

[from On the Media, NPR]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. All over the world this week, people watched as the fighting in the Middle East escalated. Last week, we looked at the way the story was playing in the region itself, and this week, we'll once again survey the Arab and Israeli coverage, but we'll also reflect on how the story is being told in other parts of the world, including our own.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we slice and dice the coverage, we find, as in most media analysis, but especially this story, that no observer is truly neutral; that the idea of a solid middle ground from which we can judge others who seem so hopelessly stuck in the bogs of ideology is a myth.

So, with that said, we turn first to J.J. Goldberg. He's the editor of The Forward, the 109-year-old Jewish newspaper published here in New York. This week, his paper reported on the peculiar silence of bloggers on the political left.

J.J. GOLDBERG: On the right, the bloggers are going on and on about those horrible Muslims, the horrible Arabs, and on the left, there's been an unwillingness to get into it. You don't want to get into the sort of invective you're going to get from your readers, whichever side you take.

There's been for years a readiness in the Jewish community to jump down the throat of any journalist who made Israel sound bad, and in the last couple of years we've seen a comparable readiness on the side of the pro-Palestinian community and the anti-Israel community, I would say, to jump down the throat of people who make Israel look good. So people are afraid to put their toe in the water these days.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you're the editor of The Forward, the oldest Jewish newspaper in the United States. Do you feel conflicted when you cover this story?

J.J. GOLDBERG: I don't feel conflicted. Look, we began as a voice of American socialism. We are still well to the left of center. I identify with the Israeli left. The Israeli left doesn't have any misgivings about the existence of the state of Israel. I've got friends and cousins who are fighting on the front lines but do not want to continue the occupation of the West Bank in Gaza.

There are wars that Israel has launched in the last 20 years that I've been opposed to. There are actions Israel has taken that I've been very opposed to. But I don't have any conflicts about supporting the right of Israel to exist within negotiated borders alongside Palestine.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about the American coverage. In general, how would you characterize it?

J.J. GOLDBERG: I think at the moment, the American press is attempting to be scrupulously balanced — X number of bombs here, X number of rockets there, a story about a family that suffered losses in Lebanon, a story about a family that suffered losses in Israel. But when you look at the death tolls, you have to ask why is the balance so scrupulous?

As we're speaking today — it's Thursday — there were about 300 deaths on the Lebanese side. Almost all of them, except for a dozen or so, were civilians. On the Israeli side, you had about 26 or 28 deaths, just over half were civilians, so that there's an imbalance in the number of losses.

And if you're simply looking at victimization and the human casualties, you would have to ask why is the Israeli side getting equal time?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying that when the American media offer equal time to these casualties, they give the corresponding impression that there are equal casualties.

J.J. GOLDBERG: Or that there is a moral balance on both sides.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what, in your view, accounts for that?

J.J. GOLDBERG: Well, American journalists are accustomed and trained to talk in human terms. Tell me a story, tell me about a person, lead it with a face, lead it with a kid, lead it with a puppy. So when you have deaths on both sides, you talk about the deaths on both sides.

Now, there's a discomfort in the current conflict because the deaths on the Lebanese side are way disproportionate to the deaths on the Israeli side. On the other hand, the provocation on the Israeli side is way disproportionate to the provocation on the Lebanese side. The Israelis were invaded by Hezbollah and are responding to that invasion.

So rather than get into a long explanation of history and law, the journalists will attempt to achieve some sort of rough parity by giving equal time to the victims on both sides.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think that is because they don't have the historical memory or the expertise to offer good analysis on their own in the United States?

J.J. GOLDBERG: Well, most newspapers pride themselves on sending out reporters who don't have a commitment or an involvement, which means they don't know that much. You're supposed to pick it up by observing, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The big issue here is that the story changed. Up until five years ago, Israel's primary opponent was el-Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, and they were fighting for a Palestinian state. It was about where you put the border between the two peoples.

Over the last three, four, five years, you've seen an increasing role of Muslim fundamentalist militias, both in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories, whose goal is not to create a Palestinian state but to eliminate the Israeli state. And we haven't caught up with that. We don't know how to explain the imbalance in that, that it really is, at this point, from Israel's point of view, a struggle for survival.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you'd still say overall that the coverage is largely pro-Israel in the United States.

J.J. GOLDBERG: Well, it's certainly more pro-Israel than the coverage in Europe, in the sense that the American coverage doesn't begin with the assumption that Israel is in the wrong. You have, in Europe, a sympathy on the left for Muslims, in the sense that in Europe, the Muslim population is the underclass. It's the immigrant class. It's the underdog. And since the Muslim population generally comes with the argument that the creation of Israel was a crime, that is a credible assertion.

In this country, it hasn't been, up until now, a credible assertion to say that the creation of Israel is a crime.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this why it's so hard for reporters all around the world to get their arms around this story, because, either stated or unstated, it's based on a certain assumption from which all ethical judgments have to flow, and that's whether or not Israel has a right to exist?

J.J. GOLDBERG: That is a mouthful, but I think that's what it boils down to. If you think Israel has a right to exist, then you create a different universe of descriptions. And if you think Israel essentially shouldn't have existed, then you start a completely different universe of assumptions and descriptions. It is possible, conceivably, for a reporter to describe the descriptions on both sides.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's a very long story that you'd have to write.

J.J. GOLDBERG: It is. It is. And when you're working in the space of 800 words in between ads, you can't always get the whole story right. You try and quote people from both sides, but there aren't two sides. There's the side in Israel that wants to use all possible force and disregard the rights of others, and there's the side in Israel that wants to use the force necessary to protect Israelis and be done with it.

There's the side on the Arab side that wants to restore Palestinian rights alongside Israel, and there's the side on the Arab side that wants to eliminate the state of Israel. There are many, many voices, and it's hard to cover all of them at the same time.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: J.J. Goldberg is the editor of The Forward newspaper in New York City.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey